Illinois coach Bruce Weber spoke with media Monday about Ibrahima Djimde (pronounced EE-bruh-hee-muh JIM-day) joining the basketball team. A scholarship came open when Jereme Richmond left school and entered the NBA draft, and the Illini needed a power forward/center type to add depth on the inside. Weber said this all happened suddenly.
"This is just in the last 3-4 weeks. We just started calling around. We ended up going out and watching him and then kind of scrambled.
"He did have some schools, a lot of mid majors that had been on him. They were hoping they had a steal, and then some high majors started coming in. I guess we created some excitement and developed a relationship with his coaches and also with him. We feel pretty fortunate.
"We feel that physicality, strength, size, if we could find somebody with any of those attributes, would be a positive thing for us. We made lots of calls. There was a possibility of saving a scholarship for a year, or, if somebody popped up who we felt was worthy of it and could give us a good chance of competing next year and in the future, we would go with it."
It appears the tall, muscular Djimde fit the bill. He played this past season at Huntington Prep in West Virginia after a year at Progressive Christian in Washington, D.C.
"Ibby came up. He's a young man who's only been here for two years at the prep schools, and he's made huge strides. Talking to the people who have been around him, two years ago they would never have thought he had a chance at a college scholarship. From learning English to the basketball part, learning the game. He hasn't played that much."
It didn't take long for Weber and his staff to become enamored with Djimde both as a player and person.
"He's really a good kid, has a nice personality, very polite, very driven. He's just so happy to be here in this country and have an opportunity to play basketball and maybe have a future. To me, those are all really positive traits.
"When you add that he's 6'-8", 6'-9" and about 250 and very solid. He likes to play physical, he likes to bang. His prep school team had several guys his size if not bigger, and he had a chance to go against those guys. I think he's got a chance to be a very good player."
Weber's Illini teams have struggled with rebounding and post defense in recent years. Weber sounds relieved to have someone who wants to stay inside and fight.
"To me, it's just so pleasant that he wants to rebound, he wants to guard, he wants to battle in the post. He doesn't have any visions of grandeur about shooting threes out on the perimeter. He knows what he is, and he feels good about that. I think he'll be a nice addition to our program."
Djimde's prep school statistics do not tell the true story of his value to a team according to Weber.
"It's hard to evaluate his numbers because they have so many good players. They say 7-8 guys on their roster will play Division I basketball. They have a 7'-4" guy that's a junior already committed to somebody. So he didn't have the opportunity to get big numbers.
"There were certain games he would get in the 20's and 14-15 rebounds, and there were games he didn't get quite the numbers he would on a normal team."
Djimde has intangible traits Weber respects.
"If you ask his coaches, he plays harder than anybody every day. That was the first thing when we called. The coach said, 'I promise you there's a lot of players who might be more talented, can jump higher and all that. But no one will outcompete him and outwork him. That's a positive thing.
"Just watching film, I was surprised. He has good hands, they had him bring up the ball against the press a little bit. So it's not like he's never played or anything. I wouldn't say he has 17 different post moves, but he's got a couple post moves. He passed the ball pretty well, high-low with other big kids on his team, he made the right passes. He also battled in the post.
"I asked him after he was here about playing with our guys. He said, 'I told the big guys, "Come in the paint, I'll battle with you."' So it's a little different post player than we've had."
Weber could have tried to balance the classes more by saving a scholarship for next year. But immediate needs and the adage, 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' came into play.
"One, we wanted to see what was out there. Once we saw what he's about, his future, his body, his strength, his maturity, it just makes sense to us to give it a go. Where we evaluate in the Midwest, there's not many big guys in this next class. If we're gonna get a big kid, we're just fortunate to have somebody like him. I just think he has a lot of upside."
It has taken Djimde awhile to learn and speak English. He had no background in the language when he arrived in the US two years ago.
"I was worried the first time I called him. I just had no idea what it would be like. He's fine. His English is pretty fluent. Just talking to the coaches and the people who have been around him, two years ago he had no chance. It was all so new, and he had to struggle.
"I asked him about practice the first year at Progressive Christian, and he said that he had a cell phone, and he would type in words. So when they said, 'Get back in transition,' he'd have to figure it out. Practice must have went forever, but he didn't know what was going on.
"Now I think he has a good feel of it. When you just sit and talk with him, he's learned basketball vocabulary from watching games on TV, college, NBA. He speaks French, their native language, and there's an African language from Mali that he also speaks, and English. Compared to all of us, he has three languages that he can speak. He has intelligence and a desire to be successful."
There are still academic hurdles to climb. The biggest issue is completing the paperwork in time for summer classes at the UI. If he isn't enrolled by then, he can't join the team on its Italy tour in August.
"With international students, there's a lot of work for him to do and us to do for admittance and the Clearinghouse. So it's not a snap of the fingers. We're gonna have to get transcripts from Mali, get them to the International Clearinghouse, and of course Admissions and things here. So it's gonna take awhile.
"We emphasized to his people that the quicker he did that the better. We're hoping to get an application going for a transcript request and all that stuff. The key is having him here in the summer so he'll have a chance to work out and then be on the trip."
Weber has only one scholarship available for next year. He explains where he will now focus his efforts.
"We'll still have one spot as of right now. If we're gonna look for somebody, I'd say it would probably be more of a point guard to give us some depth. Depending on Brandon (Paul) and Crandall (Head) and some other people's improvement, along with Tracy (Abrams)."
The Illini were in the market for an inside banger, and it appears they may have found him. Given how motivated Djimde must be to move from his country to have a chance for an education and basketball career, he will likely be coachable and set a good example for his teammates.
"He feels so fortunate to have the opportunity. Obviously, he's sacrificed a lot. He hasn't been home in two years. He said mom calls every Sunday. Now with all the Internet and Skyping and things like that, he's got a lot better chance to talk to his mom and to his siblings. But he's basically left, and I don't know in his mind if he feels like he'll be able to go back until he's done with college.
"With that sacrifice, and understanding that basketball can get him somewhere in life, I think that drive has helped him. It's pleasant for us as coaches to know that he is very humble and polite and appreciates it more."